Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. loomed very large as a public figure and role model when I was a kid. I grew up in one of those homes where the television was always on, but early in the evening, it was always tuned to the news (WCBS and Walter Cronkite). Some of the first national news stories I can remember involved sit-ins, Freedom Riders, and sheriffs turning water hoses on Negroes in the South. I remember the coverage of Dr. King at the March on Washington, the week after my ninth birthday. He and the astronauts and President Kennedy, before and after his martyrdom, were the sociopolitical culture heroes in our corner of Westchester County.
I had a more personal connection, too. When Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 1964, our sixth-grade teacher, Vera Greene, had us students write letters of congratulation to him. “Peace is not a thing that you can take for granted,” I wrote at age 10. “You can’t just put it in a toy box and forget about it.” (Our penmanship, as well as our language mechanics, had to be perfect, something that caused me to have to write many, many drafts.)
After Dr. King’s assassination, Mrs. Greene had her sixth-graders of spring 1968 write memorial poems and notes of condolence to the King family. Eventually, all the essays and notes, with student drawings and an account of Dr. King’s trip to Oslo and his major speeches, were gathered in a slim book and published. Each of us got a copy, but mine disappeared some time after I reached adulthood. I finally tracked one down at a Manhattan bookstore a few years ago. It had retailed at $2.25; I talked the manager down to $70.00. (“But I’m one of the authors!”)
In recent years, Dr. King’s birthday celebration on the third Monday in January has been an important day for me on the Jewish as well as secular calendar, and it was extra special this year because the national observance was on his actual birthday, January 15, and my chavurah’s second-Friday Shabbat service fell at the beginning of the holiday weekend. And, as serendipity would have it, a colleague posting on Facebook dropped the perfect MLK Jr. text into my lap on Friday as the basis for a drashah.
In one of his less well-known speeches, Dr. King eulogized three of the four girls who were killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when it was bombed in September 1963. In that speech, he made reference to politicians who have fed their constituents “the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.”
That metaphor may seem mild, as we tend to compare hatred and bigotry to more dire bodily problems such as cancer or plague. But as I thought about it, the comparison seemed more and more apt. There’s nothing fresh about sinat chinam, baseless hatred; it’s been around forever. Meat that’s gone bad can sicken us. Nobody wants to eat stale bread and spoiled meat. But if that’s all you have to keep yourself from starving to death, you’ll eat it. If your existence is barren, if you don’t where your next meal is coming from and your soul has little to sustain it but threats of hellfire or a cheap high, you’ll accept hatred and racism as fuel to keep that soul going. Seeing hatred and bigotry as stale bread and spoiled meat helps us understand a little better why so many people accept fear and bigotry as sustainers of their souls, even when it makes their lives no better.
Dr. King had it right when he spoke of the leaders who feed hatred and racism to the populace. They, including our current POTUS, have no excuse for peddling fear and racism other than self-interest. They have plenty of access to soul-sustaining entities: family, creature comforts, religious faith (professed if not practiced), power. Yet they teach their constituents to fear what they don’t know and to hate the Other, even though they know it isn’t in the voters’ best interests to do so. Hatred and racism won’t fatten their constitutents’ paychecks, provide them with health care, put secure roofs over their heads, send their kids to decent schools. Hatred and racism are useful, however, if one’s goal is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a very few, and right now that appears to be the working plan of the current administration.
We can and must take up Dr. King’s lifelong struggle against inequality, injustice, and hate. As a Christian, Dr. King saw the possibility of a nation in which love and hope conquer fear and hatred. I join all the other Jews who walked with him toward his goal.